May 11, 2020 | By Bryson Smith | Back to news

Little did I know on March 11th, as I made my way to my Multidimensional Scaling, Cluster, and Factor Analysis course, that the 3 hour lecture ahead of me wouldn’t be the only thing I would be trying to wrap my head around. As we feverishly tried to copy down every word on how to perform a Promax rotation in SPSS when doing Confirmatory Factor Analysis, an email from Chancellor Blank arrived which instantly turned us from our notes to Slack. “Schools Cancelled. Official.” popped one message. Another read “No classes in person till April 10.” Then a flurry. “What about Spring Ball? Canceled too?” “The Cubs game?” “Do you think we’ll come back April 10th?” “I wonder about Graduation…”

I can’t say it was entirely surprising. Not to me at least. I’d been watching the virus closely. My in-laws are U.S. diplomats and were stationed in Wuhan. We’d been worried about them since they’d flown back to Wuhan after a family Christmas in the States. By late January they were evacuating. My father-in-law was instrumental in coordinating the evacuation flights of Americans from a city on lockdown. It was a minor miracle. When our classes were canceled, they’d barely finished their federally mandated quarantine at March Air Reserve Base in California.

However, I didn’t expect this. No one thought it would progress like it has. The virus transitioned to a “someone else, someplace else” situation and started to hit home. Shortly thereafter, I saw the headlines “WHO declares COVID-19 a pandemic.”

Over the next week, I saw spring break plans canceled last minute. The MBA program started announcing cancellations or postponements to many activities. In retrospect, perhaps the worst part was missing the opportunity to say proper goodbyes. There was hope we would all gather together again; there’s been plenty of dismays. However, it never does any good to only focus on the bad. In that week, UW-Madison transitioned all courses, labs, and seminars to online.  And frankly, I have been extremely impressed. 

Professors adapted with agility and grace. They adapted lesson plans, applied learning experiences, assignments, and tests to an online format. They learned to use a virtual classroom and find creative ways to teach when you cannot see your students’ faces. The professors of the Wisconsin School of Business have shown their pedagogical power and have ensured that their MBA students continue to learn the appropriate skills and concepts that prepare them as future business leaders. 

On a personal level, the transition has been a mixed bag. I prefer an in-person learning experience. It is one of the reasons I chose to pursue a full-time MBA. I enjoy the collaborative nature of the MBA and have missed associating with my fellow classmates, learning from them, building relationships and enjoying their company. We have tried to stay connected virtually, but, no doubt, many of us feel isolated. We have to be more intentional now about the relationships we try to build and maintain. There is a lesson to be learned here in regard to professional networking.

Speaking of virtual networking; Zoom. You’ve probably heard of it. Slack, Microsoft Teams, Cisco WebEx, BlackBoard Collaborate, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Google Duo, WhatsApp. You’ve probably heard of those too. You’re probably using one of those services quite frequently. I never thought that I would be learning to use the video conferencing features of all of them in less than a week. Luckily it isn’t hard. However, you learn interesting quirks. Like the “Mute” icon in BlackBoard Collaborate (used for classes) is exactly the same as the “Un-muted” icon in Cisco WebEx ( which I use for work). Which leads to embarrassing interactions like your boss messaging you during a training session that your mic is still on, and realizing everyone can hear you eating your 2nd pre-lunch quarantine snack. 

I also have small children at home. Getting an MBA with two kids under two-and-a-half years old is as difficult as it sounds. Before the stay-at-home orders, I would leave in the morning and come home once my work for the day was done. Now, I have conference calls interrupted by my oldest declaring her latest potty training success. I’ve had several calls while trying to hold a wild and wriggling ten-month old when Mom was busy and needed another set of hands. Assignments seem to take longer now and I definitely get less sleep.

There are upsides. I don’t have to wake up early to take the bus to school, which is amazing. The ability to rewatch lectures has been a godsend. Something I have to do fairly often now as I may miss parts in helping take care of my kids, but I also have done better on assignments and feel like I’ve got a better understanding of the material because of it. I also get to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with my family. Something I’m sure I will miss when things eventually go back to normal. I know my wife will also miss the help while I’m at the office. 

While we try to deal with disappointing circumstances surrounding the end of our MBA experience, I’m left with a few closing thoughts that getting an MBA during COVID-19 has taught me:

  1. Virtual learning has its upsides and there are best practices that should be continued, like recording lectures for the class, or having virtual group meetings where collaborating and screen sharing reduce the need for physical spaces.
  2. We should all continue to be more deliberate about the relationships we’ve built, both personal and professional. We need to look after and check in on each other more. We are all in this together. Even if it is a simple text or phone call with no other purpose than to talk.
  3. Agility and positivity are critical elements of success, and we need difficult experiences to build those muscles. The world can, and does, change very quickly; businesses, and the individuals which comprise them, must be able to react accordingly.
  4. Gratitude. I am extremely grateful for all of the professors, administrators, and students who make the Wisconsin School of Business what it is. I am also incredibly grateful for the preparation it has provided me to move into a career field that I love, with a world-class company. 
  5. Giving back is more important now than ever. Offering our skills, networks, and advice to those who are struggling to find work. Donating our time and talents to our Alma Maters and other organizations who are hard hit. We have to recognize how privileged we are, and help those who are not. 

COVID-19 has changed all of our lives. It certainly has contributed to an unforgettable MBA experience; one that I will be forever grateful for.